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truth in data Swiss use public statistics to fight fake news

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Access to information from mobile devices and on social networks has helped data from sometimes dubious sources to circulate quickly.

(Keystone)

​​​​​​​As a growing tide of false information threatens the integrity of political debate, the Swiss statistical system is looking to reinforce its role as a reliable information source.​​​​​​​

The organisation responsible for producing official statistics in Switzerland is facing a challenge unlike any other in its 150-year history: the proliferation of data from non-official and sometimes dubious sources. In the digital age, such unverified information can make the rounds quickly and even distort the facts.

"For the public, the distinction between official statistics and other sources of data is not always clear,” Georges-Simon Ulrich told reporters during a conference on data and fake news co-hosted this week by the Federal Statistical Officeexternal link, which he heads.

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Sound policy-making and political debate depend on quality evidence, Ulrich said, so when statistics are manipulated, poorly produced or interpreted, they threaten democratic institutions.

To combat this threat, the Statistical office wants to raise its profile in the eyes of the public and position itself as a reliable source of official data. 

But to do this, Ulrich acknowledged the need to engage more with the people.

“In the past the Federal Statistical Office just presented data without explaining how it was produced,” Ulrich told swissinfo.ch. 

Now the Office is striving to be more transparent about its methods and open to questions, even criticisms. It is also eager for users to learn how to interpret the information it publishes.

Part of this work, Ulrich added, is to empower journalists to report data accurately. The conference “Truth in Numbers”external link in the capital Bern saw the Statistical office reaching out to the media and other stakeholders. Organisers talked up the strengths of official data, its quality and reliability. They also expressed the need for greater data literacy not just in Switzerland, but globally.

“Fighting against fake news is something that concerns everyone,” Ulrich told swissinfo.ch. “We have to empower people to do some critical thinking – schools have to get involved, the Statistical office and politicians as well.”

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